Mark Terry

Monday, January 15, 2007

Getting Inside an Agent or Editor's Head

January 15, 2007
Over the last year or so I've had the opportunity to read a number of manuscripts or partial manuscripts by unpublished novelists. Except for one memorable manuscript, they've all been pretty good. The one memorable one might have been had the writer had more craft and it's possible with hard work and feedback that he will.

I've also read an unpublished manuscript by a novelist who makes a decent living off his published novels alone.

Why aren't they publishable?

Frankly, I don't really know. There's a definite crapshoot quality to this. It's possible that some of them will be published, possibly to great acclaim and tons of money.

I'm reading one now and I commented to my wife yesterday, "On a line by line, word for word basis, he's a pretty good writer. I'm starting to appreciate the problem an editor or agent has."

Imagine for a moment that you're an agent and you receive approximately 100 manuscripts or partial manuscripts per week. I would guess that 95 of those are unpublishable. The remaining 5--wait, let's do a little math first. If they get 100 a week (probably a lowball number), they get 400 a month or 4800 a year. Now, I read 50 or 60 novels a year, so for a moment consider taking a look at almost 5000 manuscripts. Unless you've come totally unhinged from reality, that number has to seem a bit daunting. But then again, most are crap and you can eliminate them within the first couple pages.

Okay, optimistically 5 a week are worth reading all the way through, that's 20 a month, approximately 250 a year. Still a lot and probably wildly optimistic.

Now, a single agent (and no editor) is going to take on 250 new clients a year.

So what are they looking for?

Ask yourself this question: Have you ever read a novel that was published with or without fanfare and acclaim that you said, "What the hell was the editor thinking?"

If you haven't, you need to read more books.

Another question: Ever walked into a Borders or Barnes & Noble or similar bookstore and taken a moment to just look around and think, "An awful lot of books have to be published in order to fill up all these shelves."?

Now, one final question that you need to ask yourself: Have you ever paid bills? Do you have a mortgage or rent payment, a car payment, orthondontist for your kids, a vacation you want to take, grocery bills, cable bill, phone bill?

NO? Get a life and come back later.

Well here's a fact of life. Agents and editors have bills to pay, too.

So what is an agent or editor thinking when they get a manuscript?

My guess? They're thinking: I hope this is the one that makes me rich. Or, my kid wants to go to Yale next year, how the hell am I going to afford that? Or, I really want to go to Maui for 10 days this year but I just can't swing it.

But what are they thinking about what they're reading?

My guess is: Huh, it's okay, but it's not blowing me away.

She's a good writer but I find it too easy to put it down.

Oh, this is just like the last 8 books I read.

Oh God, not another Da Vinci Clone. That boat has sailed.

This is a pretty good book, but the most I can sell it for is $5000 which will only come to $750 for me and my daughter's got her heart set on Yale.

I'm sifting for diamonds or gold and keep getting industrial grade or copper.

I've got room on my list for 8 more books and I've already got 3 thrillers about terrorism, 1 about a conspiracy involving the Catholic Church and a secret society from the Dark Ages, 5 cozies including one about a cat that solves crimes, 2 P.I. novels involving smart-mouthed tough guys or gals, 1 police procedural about serial killers and 2 plucky-single-female-meets-mysterious-stranger-and-finds-her-life-in-jeopardy novels, so I really need to find something different.

My boss (editor, publisher, accountant, loan shark) shot down the last six manuscripts I brought, so the next one I bring had better blow them away or I'm going to be flipping burgers at McDonald's next week. (and my daughter wants to go to Yale next year and I really need to get out of the city someplace warm for a week or 10 days and my son's orthodontist bill's due...)

See? Nobody said this would be easy. "Good enough" can actually be "good enough" if you're in the right place at the right time with the right editor and the right agent, but otherwise, a "good writer" has got a problem. A good writer needs the "right" project. (Or to be a "better" writer).

I find this frustrating still and I can assure you that when I was unpublished I felt it all the time. As I recently commented to my agent when an editor turned down a manuscript saying he liked the character and the story and the writing, but didn't think it was quite strong enough to "break out" I commented, "Doesn't want much, does he?"

To which my agent replied: "Just everything."

Mark Terry


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

It's probably better to not even think about such things. I'd guess that the 95% crap estimate for what agents have submitted to them is way too high. Lots and lots of people can use words well. But from what I've seen the problem is that what is said isn't very interesting. But what interests one person won't interest another.

The more I learn the more I realize that Mary and I were very very fortunate to have got the chance to do our writing thing for an audience. Plenty of better writers won't be so lucky.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I don't know if it's too high or not. There are also a lot of people who think they're better writers than they are. And I've read some "pretty good" stories that were written fine and nonetheless didn't seem publishable to me, although it's possible that somebody would pick those books up. Of course, as I hinted, I've read a fair number of published novels where had I been the editor I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have been published.

7:44 AM  
Anonymous gregory huffstutter said...

It's hard to think objectively about my own manuscript -- after spending the last 6 years on it. But at least I'm pretty sure about one thing... a potential agent/editor isn't going to think: "This is just like the other 10 fur-fetish hit-man book proposals I read this week."

9:56 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I'm sure you're right. And I wasn't talking about you specifically in this post, although I know I said pretty much the same thing to you.

It's just the more "really pretty good" manuscripts I read, the more I realize just how much of a crapshoot it must be for editors and agents.

And I wonder how jaded they get. If my own feelings about reading recently are like theirs, then the answer is probably: very.

It really takes an amazing book for me to really sit up and take notice. That isn't to say that I don't enjoy the many books I read, but it really takes quite a book for me to go, "Hmmm, wow, this is amazing."

Makes me think I should take about a year off from reading, but I know that'll never happen.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

Miss Snark recently said that the manuscripts that are the most impossible to fix are the ones where there's nothing wrong in them, but there's not enough right.

You know, some of the Killer Year excerpts just blew me away. You can definitely see what made them stand out. (Marcus Sakey and Robert Gregory Browne)

12:09 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Over the years most writers (myself included) hear the comment, "Lacks tension."

This doesn't mean there's a lack of kiss-kiss-bang-bang and other cliffhangers.

What it means, I think, is a sort of internal tension that holds the whole thing together and keeps the readers interested when there isn't any KKBB. Michael Connelly suggested to me when I interviewed him (hear a big plunk of a name dropping?) that every character in every scene must want something, even if it's just a glass of water.

And I think that the well-written novels that just don't it often lack that internal tension.

Just today at lunch--it's a snow day--and my sons and I were talking about various books and my youngest (8) commented on how some character had a problem.

I said, "Nobody wants to read books about happy people with no problems. That's boring."

At the same time, I also don't think people want to really read all that much about people who get along too well, even if they're married, lovers, friends or anything else.

1:29 PM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

For an agent to take on an author it isn't enough for the agent to even like it. I expect agents might like/enjoy lots of books but not to the point they want to represent the authors.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

The agent question is complicated, because the agent-writer relationship can be complicated. Although I've heard of agents who don't bother reading their clients' works once they get going, I think that's rare. And I think it would be tough for an agent to sell something they didn't like in a market that's pretty rough anyway (although there are people who can sell anything, that's just part of their personality).

One of the complexities I see with agents is, if you go with a small boutique agency (like mine) where there's only 1 or 2 agents, realistically, they're not going to have a hundred clients. If you go with a big agency that has 50 agents or 75 agents, they may have hundreds of clients, which strikes me as not necessarily being a good thing (but it would depend on your personality).

Agents typically have a relationship with a finite number of editors. If they're doing their jobs, they're probably always trying to meet or interact with new editors, so there's a possibility an agent will read your manuscript, say, "I like it, but who in hell would I sell it to? I know editor X hates this type of thing, and editor Y loves it but just bought three books just like it, and editor Z just told me he loves those types of books, but his last 3 didn't sell through so he's not buying them any more."

2:54 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I'm sure agents are swamped and just trying to do their best. So I don't take anything they say too personally. I just hope for a comment, a tiny,tinesy little word or two scribbled on the bottom of that rejection letter so I know what I'm doing wrong..or right.
What I'd like to see is people post their query letters. I think some of us don't even get out of the gate because the hook in our query is lacking.

PS; I can't believe Derrick killed Irina/nadia! That was a shock.

4:32 PM  
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9:09 PM  

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